Whether we realize it or not, at every moment we stand devoted to something—something which we cherish above all others. It may be money, a job, a person, an ideal, or our own comfort, but whatever it is, it’s the thing to which we orient all our resources, all our interest, and all our hope.
What it is, therefore, matters a great deal, for studies show that what we choose to pursue in life strongly influences our ability to be happy. Pursuing material wealth, for example, actually tends to decrease our happiness in the long run. Pursuing altruistic goals, on the other hand, is one of the few things that actually increases it.
Given how influential the thing to which we devote ourselves ends up being, it’s surprising that many people don’t even know what it is they’ve chosen. On the other hand, reasons are like the layers of an onion, one lying inside another, and if we never bother to peel back the outer ones, we’ll never be able to catch a glimpse of the innermost one.
But if we don’t know what it is, that innermost one will pull us around as if it were a finger tugging on a ring in our nose—meaning that we’ll do things without thinking in order to satisfy it and retrospectively rationalize our actions. And because we’ll mostly do this without thinking, we’ll be hard-pressed to stop. Which means that if we want to increase the degree of control we have over ourselves, we should choose our object of devotion wisely.
Money remains perhaps the most common object of devotion. And though it’s certainly important, if this is the predominant thing around which our lives orbit, a limit will be imposed on the height to which our happiness can rise. The second most common object of devotion is probably other people. And though devoting ourselves to compassionate action seems to place no limit on our ability to become happier, if our object of devotion is a specific person, we’ll find it quite difficult to avoid not trying to give them whatever they want, which often isn’t at all what they need. Further, as I wrote about in an earlier post, The Good Guy Contract, we’ll also put ourselves at risk for needing too much from them: when their wants aren’t met, our ability to remain happy will often suffer as well.
On the other hand, though pursuing altruistic goals has been shown to increase happiness, we may not want to make other people in general the object of our devotion either. Though the caring for others may be instrumental in securing our own happiness, doing so at the expense of our own happiness is just as clearly problematic. A balance must be struck—a balance that’s not so easy to find.
Which is why Nichiren Buddhism argues that the object of our devotion should actually be ourselves. Not our selfish, small-minded selves, but rather our wiser, larger selves—the wisdom and compassion inherent in life itself, which Nichiren Buddhism terms the Buddha nature.
By devoting ourselves to uncovering this nature and to manifesting it in daily life, Nichiren Buddhism argues, we’ll be able to bring all other aspects of our lives into their proper perspective. And, in fact, whenever I’ve found myself stuck, either unable to achieve a goal or unable to endure a trauma, it’s usually because I’ve made that goal or that trauma my object of devotion. (What else would thinking about something all the time to the exclusion of all other things make it?) But when I’ve realized this and consciously refocused my attention and interest on manifesting wisdom, barriers seem to fall and forward progress again occurs.
Only by manifesting wisdom can we figure out how to balance our concern for ourselves with our concern for others, how much to value money compared to experience, and what we must do to live the happiest life possible. To make the object of our devotion our best selves, then, is to find an object truly worthy of worship.
Next Week: How Superstitions Really Work